Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading in the Future

I read a lot. That includes the quotidian micro-reading we all do (email, Twitter, Facebook, texts, news) as well as more sustained reading, such as books. Over the last few years, micro-reading - short works, up to a few paragraphs - has migrated mainly to my phone, which is always with me. But sustained reading has mostly stayed where it's always been (for me): in books and in printouts, annotated mostly through small sticky notes in the margins.

Why? And should that change? I've been wondering over the last week or so whether I should migrate to an e-reader.
1984-ish: My brother and I buy a Commodore 64, disk drive, and printer. We begin playing an Infocom text-only adventure, Deadline. It's complicated, so we decide to set the game to print every interaction so that we can review it later. Soon we run out of paper.

1986-ish: I write a report for high school in longhand. My mother types up the final version on a dedicated word processor.
Transitioning from print to digital was not intuitive. Those of us who went through it thought that a printer was a vital accessory: The computer was where you produced a text, but paper was where you composed it (in longhand), edited it (sometimes on a printout), and shared it (not just out of preference, but also necessity: few friends had a C64, let alone a disk drive or modem). But there were other reasons to use paper.
1989: Working on my undergraduate degree in computer science, I draft programs on paper, type them into the computer, then try to compile them. At the end of a session, I print out the code and hand-edit it. I have to. The screen only shows 80 characters per line and only 24 lines, so I can't get a panoramic view. With a printout, I can lay out several pages, compare different parts of the code, and see how they relate. Also, the printout is much more portable than the computers in the university computer lab - I haven't bought my own computer yet. When I explain my process to an experienced programmer, he says, "Oh, you can't compose on glass?"

1990: I get a home computer and a home copy of Borland's Turbo C Integrated Developer Environment. It changes everything. Now I can split the window and look at code at two different places simultaneously. I can search for unique identifiers too. I can also try out code more rapidly. I don't have a home printer, although I do print out code at school - more occasionally.
Access is a big deal, but so is text density. You simply can't fit much text on an 80x24 screen, and it's very hard to remember the shape of the text you can't see. When you're used to relying on reading strategies based on a broad field of vision, and you lose that broad field of vision, you have to develop new strategies or new tools to compensate. The split screen and search were two such tools.
1994: I begin using Mosaic.

1998: Working on my dissertation, I oscillate between printouts (which I heavily mark up at coffee shops and in my office) and the computer representation, which resides on my home hard drive and at least two 3.5" floppy disks.

1998: I borrow a Palm Pilot and try the to do list, calendar, and notes. I begin to see the potential for microreading.

2000: I'm playing Mario Kart with three other players in Lubbock. The screen shows four different viewpoints, one for each player. I have a hard enough time interpreting what's happening in my quadrant. But one of the other players easily watches the four screens simultaneously. He laughs as he launches a blue shell, then sees it pass through the other players' viewpoints to hit the one in the lead.
Tools aren't the only thing that can improve reading, of course, because human beings don't come off an assembly line. Human beings develop strategies for reading too. When I realized that my friend could pay attention to all four quadrants simultaneously, I realized that he had developed strategies that I couldn't realistically hope to develop. This made me feel old.
2000: After trying to take field notes in notebooks for a month, I buy a Palm Pilot and a collapsable keyboard, on which I take the rest of the field notes. I set up macros to speed up the process and I obtain a simple Palm-based database for managing participant information. (These data eventually become my second book.)

2001: I encourage my students in the computer lab to save their work to a USB drive. One doesn't - instead, he simply mails the file to himself in Yahoo Mail, which is accessible anywhere. I am fascinated at what suddenly seems like an obvious solution.

2002 or 2003: I use a small grant to buy a Sharp Zaurus, which runs Linux. I start outlining papers on it, but find that even with its greater screen density, it's too hard to get a sense of how the paper develops. I also get a copy of mysql running on it, which I use for formulating queries of my field notes.
Microreading is great for small screens. And we do a lot of microreading: to do lists, shopping lists, calendars, references. For sustained reading, though, I have trouble getting the hang of using the small screen. That wasn't for lack of trying. Meanwhile, more and more content was migrating online.
2007: Inspired by research on multiple monitors coming from Microsoft, I request and receive a second monitor. It helps tremendously. I start grading online.

2008: I buy an Android phone and am frustrated that I can't edit Google Docs with it.

2010: Android now allows Google Docs editing. I use it a little.

2010: Apple releases the iPad. I am unimpressed. It's too big.

2010: I finally buy an eBook, Phillip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, for $9. It's 679 pages. I try to read it on my phone, and quickly realize that although I'm reading the words, I'm not retaining them. It feels like I'm reading through a straw. A week later, I find the same book at a used book store and purchase it for $2.
At this point, I have microreading down. I read an enormous amount of text through my phone. But when I try sustained reading on the phone, it eludes me. It's as if I'm still stuck in 1990, still trying to figure out the tools - or in 2000, realizing that I don't have the strategies to cope. Sure, I can add a monitor, but I realize that I'm trying to meet two opposing conditions: field of vision and mobility. Greater mobility means a smaller screen, which means a smaller field of vision, which means less sustained reading.

This would not be a big deal but for three things:
  • I like mobility. I don't like hauling books around.
  • I like tools. I want to use tools that will enrich my reading experience, such as search, and print books don't offer many new tools.
  • I like strategies that improve reading. And part of me is worried that I'm missing out on strategies that will improve my reading - and that some may simply be beyond me, though they'll be intuitive to younger readers. That is, I begin to wonder if my reliance on print books is my version of the VCR my parents couldn't figure out how to program.
So that's where I am now. I'm interested in how others are dealing with the same issues. In particular, if you read ePubs:
  • On what form factors do you read them? Laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, phone?
  • What tools do you use to aid your ePubs reading? Search, highlighting, notes, other? Are some of these outside the ereader?
  • What strategies do you use when reading ePubs? Do you combine them with other versions? Tackle different types or sections of readings on different form factors? Follow a nonlinear pattern when reading? Bring different expectations to ePubs?
I'd love to hear what you think. Leave your comments, or tweet me @spinuzzi.


~Stella said...

Sounds like we're around the same age. I was raised on paper, too.

I read a lot also, but I suspect I divide my reading differently. Sounds like you concentrate on non-fiction. For me, it's about 40/60 (fiction/non-fiction).

I bought a Kindle in September. I bought a leather holder for it (with a neato little reading light), so when you hold it in your hand, it has the same heft as a book. I love it for reading fiction, but it stinks for non-fiction. The best thing about it is, it stays open on a table when you’re reading it. So, if you read while snacking, it’s awesome.

For me, non-fiction reading is different from fiction reading. When I read non-fiction, I'm not just consuming material. I'm relating it to other things I know and other ideas I have. I'm also summarizing and paraphrasing. There's no way I can do this without having, as you say, a larger field of vision. I need to see the writing as a whole thing, and I can't do that without holding it in my hand and flipping through it. I actively post-it and tape-flag a book as I'm reading it also. It helps when I'm ready to discuss the book in a class, and when I want to summarize it online. I like to summarize useful books and articles in annotations because I just remember them better when I do that.

Last semester, I bought the Kindle version of one of my course books. It was a nightmare to digest, quote from, and use as a resource. I just couldn’t get the full view of the material. I don’t feel it’s a deficit, I think I’m just a kinesthetic learner and I need to physically categorize and use information in order to add it to my long-term usable memory.

I spent ten years as a software engineer, and I have printed my fair share of code to read and edit in coffee shops. You've hit on something interesting when you mention that you need to see the *shape* of the code. Coding is all about patterns, and blocks of code form shapes on the page. Interesting.

I use Adobe reader to annotate and save articles. I love the note feature—I can just put my personal thoughts about how the article relates to my whole knowledge scheme right in the article. The highlighting is good too—those are the only two features I need at this point.

I need highly portable reading also, but I still print articles and write/markup the printed copy. I know it’s seems old fashioned, but I suspect it’s just the kinesthetic learner in me. As well, I think that whole “paperless office” thing was debunked (Lannon, 2010). At least, that’s what I like to tell myself. ☺

Lannon, J. (2008). Technical Communication (11th ed.). New York: Longman.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Stella, thanks. I saw your comment come through my email, but Blogger marked it as spam - sorry!

I talked recently with someone at the UT Coop who said something similar - ePubs are great for fiction, because you read linearly, but nonfiction, such as textbooks, doesn't work because people use different reading strategies. I'm finding that too.

Funny you should bring up the paperless office. Have you read Sellen and Harper's The Myth of the Paperless Office? I was thinking of it when I was typing this post up. Hmm, I should see if there's reading comprehension studies on the Kindle...

Toddoneill said...

So, I'm a little older than you. Started learning PCs on an Apple II at a public library in my senior undergrad year. Then a C64 with no disk drive for 6 months (type in programs from magazines; watch them run; turn off computer; lather; rinse; repeat.)
I get immersed in fiction; I usually finish a book in two sittings.
Non-fiction reading, I'm a skimmer. Check the TOC, go to what interests me, thumb the pages to very rapidly search for keywords or illustrations, stop when I see something.
I am a voracious micro-reader of non-fiction. Not books but online blogs and what used to be called ezines ( I think of Engadget, etc. as ezines) I click through to other articles that look interesting and do a lot of saving to Evernote for articles or bits of articles that I want to reference later.
I have tried to save PDFs to Evernote for later reading but I read on an iPod Touch and it's just too small.
I actually avoid paper non-fiction because of the time it takes to read and really comprehend. I have tried the one-chapter-a night, book-on-the--nightstand thing but it starts to seem like required reading at that point.
Yup, I'm ADD, love bright shiney information and long walks in museums reading information plaques. And, sometime (often enough) am afraid of being OCD about information. :-)
And it's 11:21 and I'm still blog reading. :-(

Tom Haskins said...

Hi Clay
Circa 1983, my nickname was Dr. DOS among my friends with PC Jrs and IBM PC-XTs. I understood how to solve the problems they were having with floppy disks and DOS commands. I find the reading I do on screen works only if I'm seeking information. However, if I'm reading for meaning or reflecting on what I'm reading, there's something about reading on screen that does not work for me. I've downloaded PDF's of entire books I intended to read but it doesn't happen. Meanwhile, I've been reading two "ink on paper" books per week since I first started teaching college in 1991. I'm currently reading Nick Carr's The Shallows. He suggests that reading books is a tactile experience which makes it more immersive and easy to concentrate. He also suggests the cognitive load to process words on paper naturally generates more focus.

I have always found my favorite computer games to be very immersive, starting with Sim City 1.0 and Tetris. From what I've learned about the cognitive science of habit formation, I suspect my brain has ben wired for reading ink on paper and playing games on screen because those experiences came first, came often, got grooved without competing heuristics and have not produced failures, setbacks or crises that could trash my established routines. The current teens and twenty-somethings might form cognitive habits for reflective, immersive reading on screen and lose concentration when trying to read printed pages. I'd argue that it's not the tools, it's the habits formed first, which determine "what works" for an individual.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Todd - I hear you. I almost never read fiction anymore, but I'm finding that popular nonfiction is more linear and therefore easier to read than academic work. Currently I'm having a go at reading Richard Wrangham's book _Catching Fire_ on the Kindle app for Android, and it's going well - especially after I pumped down the font size as small as it could go. (My corneas are still flexible - for now.)

Tom - I worry that you're right and that I'm "wired" to read print. I like to think that I'm more flexible than that, but maybe not!

And here's a general gripe. Although I love that I can easily highlight and make notes on Kindle books (much faster than copying interesting passages in marginal notes), I hate that I can't copy and paste to another window. If I could, it would make my book blogging so much faster. Maybe I can find a hack, although I'm sure Amazon wouldn't like it.